Science fiction, generally speaking, is a form of speculative fiction which deals principally with the impact of imagined science and/or technology upon society or individuals. There are, perhaps, exceptions to (or at least, some very unusual examples of) this general definition.
Sometimes the characters involved are not even human, but are imagined aliens or other products of Earth evolution. The term is more generally used to refer to any literary fantasy that includes a scientific factor as an essential orienting component, and even more generally used to refer to any fantasy at all. Such literature may consist of a careful and informed extrapolation of scientific facts and principles, or it may range into far-fetched areas flatly contradictory of such facts and principles. In either case, plausibility based on science is a requisite, so that such precursors of the genre as Mary Shelley's Gothic novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818) and Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) are plainly science fiction, whereas Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897), based purely on the supernatural, is not. Sometimes utopic and dystopic literature is also regarded as science fiction, which is accurate insofar as sociology also is a science.
The earliest known usage of the term "science fiction" is in 1851 (in Chapter 10 of William Wilson's A Little Earnest Book upon a Great Old Subject), in which he writes: "Science-Fiction, in which the revealed truths of Science may be given interwoven with a pleasing story which may itself be poetical and true."
However this appears to be an isolated usage and the term appears to have been recoined in the 1920s where it appeared in Amazing Stories.
Science fiction is often abbreviated as SF or sci-fi. However, SF is not unambigous (see under Other types, below), and sci-fi is seen by some as having derogatory overtones. A short lived synonym was scientifiction.
Types of science fiction
Hard science fiction
Main article: Hard science fiction
Hard science fiction, or hard SF, is a subgenre of science fiction characterized by an interest in scientific detail or accuracy. Hard SF stories focus on the natural sciences and technological developments. Some authors scrupulously eschew such implausibilities as faster-than-light travel, while others accept such plot devices but nonetheless show a concern with a realistic depiction of the worlds that such a technology might make accessible. Character development is sometimes secondary to explorations of astronomical or physical phenomena, but other times authors make the human condition forefront in the story. However a common theme of hard SF has the resolution of the plot often hinging upon a technological point. Writers attempt to have their stories consistent with known science at the time of publication.
Soft science fiction
Main article: Soft science fiction
Soft science fiction is the subgenre where plots and themes tend to focus on philosophy, psychology, politics and sociology while de-emphasizing the details of technological hardware and physical laws. It is so-called 'soft' science fiction, because these subjects are grouped together as the soft sciences or humanities. For instance, in Dune, Frank Herbert uses the plot device of a universe which has rejected conscious machines and has reverted to a feudal society. Consequently Herbert uses the Dune saga to comment about the human condition and make direct parallels to current socio-political realities. Soft science fiction may explore the reactions of societies or individuals to problems posed by natural phenomena or technological developments, but the technology will be a means to an end, not an end itself.
There are, of course, many borderline cases of works using outer-space settings and futuristic-looking technology as little more than window-dressing for tales of adventure, romance, and other typical dramatic themes; examples include Star Wars (which is considered by some diehards to be not science fiction but fantasy) and many Hollywood space operas. Some fans of hard science fiction would regard such films as fantasy, whereas the general public would probably place them squarely in the science fiction category. It has been suggested as a method of resolving this confusion that SF come to stand for speculative fiction and thus encompass fantasy and horror fiction as well as science fiction genres.
History of science fiction
Forerunners of science fiction
Science fiction was made possible only by the rise of modern science itself, notably the revolutions in astronomy and physics. Aside from the age-old genre of fantasy literature, which does not qualify, there were notable precursors: imaginary voyages to the moon in the 17th century, first shown in Johannes Kepler's Somnium (The Dream, 1634), then in Cyrano de Bergerac's Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon (1656), space travel in Voltaire's Micromégas (1752), alien cultures in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726) and in Ludvig Holberg's Niels Klim's Underground Travels, and science fiction elements in the 19th-century stories of Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Fitz-James O'Brien. In Romantic Poetry, too, the writers' imaginations leapt to visions of other worlds and distant futures as in Alfred Lord Tennyson's Locksley Hall.
Most notable, however, is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, first published in 1818. In his book Billion Year Spree, Brian Aldiss claims that Frankenstein represents "the first seminal work to which the label SF can be logically attached". Another futuristic Shelley novel, The Last Man, is also often cited as the first true science fiction novel.
Early science fiction
The European brand of science fiction proper began, however, toward the end of the 19th century with the scientific romances of Jules Verne, whose science was rather on the level of invention, as well as the science-oriented novels of social criticism by H.G. Wells. Although better known for other works, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle also wrote early science fiction. In America Jack London wrote several science fiction stories including The Red One (a story involving extraterrestrials), The Iron Heel (set in the future from London's point of view) and The Unparalleled Invasion (a story involving future germ warfare and ethnic cleansing). He also wrote a story about invisibility and a story about an irresistible energy weapon.
The development of American science fiction as a self-conscious genre dates (in part) from 1926, when Hugo Gernsback founded Amazing Stories magazine, which was devoted exclusively to science fiction stories. Since he is notable for having chosen the variant term scientifiction to describe this incipient genre, the stage in the genre's development, his name and the term "scientifiction" are often thought to be inextricably linked. Published in this and other pulp magazines with great and growing success, such scientifiction stories were not viewed as serious literature but as sensationalism.
The Golden Age
Main Article : Astounding Magazine
With the emergence in 1937 of a demanding editor, John W. Campbell, Jr., of Astounding Science Fiction (founded in 1930), and with the publication of stories and novels by such writers as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein, science fiction began to gain status as serious fiction. Ventures into the genre by writers who were not devoted exclusively to science fiction also added respectability; early such writers included Karel Capek, Aldous Huxley, and C. S. Lewis, and later writers included Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Magazine covers of bug-eyed monsters and scantily-clad women, however, preserved the image of a sensational genre appealing only to adolescents.
The post-war era
A great boom in the popularity of science fiction followed World War II. Some science fiction works became paperback best-sellers. The postwar American power and prosperity helped to spread the works of American writers around the world. In Japan translations by Tetsu Yano introduced hundreds of US works to the local readership.
The modern era
The modern era began in the mid 1960s with the popularisation of the genre of soft science fiction. In literary terms it dates roughly from the publication of Frank Herbert's Dune in 1965, a dense, complex, and detailed work of fiction featuring political intrigue in a future galaxy, strange and mystical religious beliefs, and the eco-system of the desert planet Arrakis. While in 1966 Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek brought such science fiction to a mass television audience. The original Star Trek was, for its time, at the forefront of liberalism, preaching the universality and equality of humanity. It had an attractive black officer, the first interracial kiss on American TV, a Russian officer (this was at the height of the Cold War), an Asian officer, and even an alien officer.
The field saw an increase in:
Also, technological fixes to a problem became a far rarer plot device.
A second generation of original and popular science fiction films begin to appear, among the most significant of which were 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), THX 1138 (1969) Close Encounters of the Third Kind, (1977), and Star Wars, (1977). (See the list of science fiction films article for a more detailed list of notable science fiction films).
The success of Star Wars was especially influential since it caused an explosive increase in interest for several years after its release in all forms of science fiction, though this has since somewhat abated. Science fiction literature strongly benefitted from this heightened interest and science fiction or fantasy titles frequently filled the bestseller lists well into the 1980s. Eventually, cultural interest in science fiction literature declined somewhat with consumer fatigue, flooded markets, and competition from other entertainment venues. Also, science fictional or fantasy "elements" began to be usurped by traditional authors and other types of media, though they were not significant enough to be classified as purely science fiction or fantasy. Today, pure science fiction or fantasy books only occasionally make the bestseller lists, although, in overall numbers there are more science fiction or fantasy books published now than in the past. Science fiction literature magazines, on the other hand, have seen a progressive and steady decline over the last 50 years.
The influence of fantasy on the genre resulted in what is now called science fantasy. Contributions of these works to the literature of the fantastic include an awareness of irrationality and the inexplicable, the transformative force of language, and the power of myth to organize experience. Star Wars is the most powerful example of this trend.
Science fiction has also been popular in radio, comic books, television, and movies; it is notable that about three-quarters of the top twenty highest grossing films (source: IMDb June 2002) are based around science-fiction or fantasy themes.
The increasing intellectual sophistication of the genre and the emphasis on wider societal and psychological issues significantly broadened the appeal of science fiction to the reading public. Science fiction became international, extending into the then Soviet Union and other eastern European nations, where it was frequently used as a vehicle for political commentary that could not be safely published in other forms. The Polish author Stanislaw Lem is one of the non-English science fiction writers who has become widely known outside his native country. Serious criticism of the genre is now common, and science fiction is studied in colleges and universities, both as literature and in how it relates to science and society.
There have been many crossover writings between science fiction and the mainstream of literature. There are writers who are generally known for mainstream literature who branch-out into writing sci-fi. Examples are: Brave New World Aldous Huxley, The Ransom Trilogy C. S. Lewis, 1984 George Orwell, On the Beach Nevil Shute, The Alteration Kingsley Amis, Shikasta Doris Lessing and The Andromeda Strain Michael Crichton. Then there are writers first known for science fiction and fantasy who crossover into mainstream literature. Examples would be J. G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss and Michael Moorcock.
Phillip K. Dick wrote several novels which were mainstream studies of people, situations and relationships (with no science fiction element at all) but they didn't sell very well until after his death and, consequently, he is remembered by most people as an author of sci-fi alone.
As we progress, further into the 21st century, technology and planned obsolescence have become so much a part of our lives that, these days, to write a contemporary novel means write a story in which people's lives are continually impacted by the presence of satellite technology, broadband internet, I-Pods, genetically modified organisms, environmental problems, robot assembly lines, cloning, designer babies, etc. etc. Even factual writing like Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff is covering areas previously the stuff of science fiction. The world has caught-up with many of science fiction's favorite themes and literature can only reflect this. As a result, the dividing line between sci-fi and the rest of literature is getting thinner.
One of the unique features of the science fiction genre is its strong fan community, of which many authors are a firm part. Many people interested in science fiction wish to interact with others who share the same interests; over time an entire culture of science fiction fandom has evolved. Local fan groups exist in most of the English-speaking world, as well as in Japan, Europe, and elsewhere; these groups often publish their own works. Also, fans were the originator of science fiction conventions, which gave them a way of getting together to discuss their mutual interest. The original and largest convention is the Worldcon.
Many fanzines ("fan magazines") (and a few professional ones) exist that are dedicated solely to informing the science fiction fan on all aspects of the genre. The premiere awards of science fiction, the Hugo Awards, are awarded by members of the annual Worldcon, which is almost entirely volunteer-run by fans.
Genres and subcategories
af:Wetenskapsfiksie da:Science-fiction de:Science-Fiction eo:Sciencfikcio es:Ciencia ficción fi:Science fiction fr:Science-fiction [[he:מדע בדיוני]] hr:Znanstvena fantastika it:Fantascienza ja:サイエンス・フィクション nl:Science fiction no:Science fiction pl:Science fiction ru:Научная фантастика sk:Science fiction sl:Znanstvena fantastika sv:Science fiction th:นิยายวิทยาศาสตร์ zh:科幻小说